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Getting Into the Fun-Loving Groove With Pianist Gene Harris' Quartet


It took Gene Harris no more than 16 bars to generate some foot-stomping, body-moving interaction with his overflow audience at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday night. By the time he finished his set more than an hour later, the veteran pianist had repeatedly generated cheers of enthusiasm via a series of object lessons in how to lay down a swinging groove.

Harris, of course, was creating grooves long before the term became an essential part of the pop and jazz dialect. As a founding member of the Three Sounds in the mid-'50s, he was one of the first players to synthesize bop rhythms and harmonies into an accessible popular style. And his essential methodology has remained the same ever since.

His approach--apparent in everything he played--differs from the typical improvisational method of using a tune as a basis for extended excursions into new territory. With Harris, the song is never far from sight. Working with familiar items such as "Green Dolphin Street," "Summertime" and "This Masquerade" as well as hard-driving blues numbers, he used the tunes to build steaming emotional climaxes, while simultaneously keeping his listeners in constant contact with the original melodies.

Building his choruses around a stylistic foundation that included elements of stride, barrelhouse, gospel and bop, leavened with traces of Erroll Garner and Oscar Peterson, Harris manipulated his musical elements in masterful fashion. Quiet, lyrical phrases were suddenly interrupted by sudden, loud bursts of sound and rhythm. Forward-moving melodic phrases were left dangling for long, suspenseful moments before the rhythmic flow once again urged them forward.

Working in tandem with Harris, guitarist Frank Potenza, drummer Paul Kreibich and--especially--bassist Luther Hughes responded to his every move, constantly ready to react to one of his sudden, spontaneous shifts of emphasis.

The result was music that was as dramatic as it was entertaining, music that was never embarrassed about reaching out to grab the emotions. True, there were moments in which Harris' penchant for milking audience reactions via rhythmic and melodic repetitions was reminiscent of the crowd-arousing tactics of the old Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts. But his essential good nature--which emerged in his many, humorous, between-tunes comments and his constantly fun-loving interaction with his players--overcame any sense of overt manipulation. He seemed, in fact, to enjoy producing the music at least as much as the audience enjoyed hearing it, and that's not a bad formula for a pleasant, uncomplicated evening of jazz.


Gene Harris Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $14 cover tonight and Sunday, $16 cover Friday and Saturday, with two-drink minimum.

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